This post was originally posted on February 1, 2017.
All students deserve a school experience that mirrors themselves and their own lives. But school curriculum should also include the fresh look of windows to peer into the lives of others. Just as we work on inclusion within our school community, differences do exist and should be learned about and celebrated.
In 1996, Emily Style first wrote about “providing students with windows and mirrors. Curriculums can serve as a mirror when it reflects individuals and their experiences back to themselves. At the same time curriculum can serve as a window when it introduces and provides the opportunity to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who possess different identities.” Curriculum and literature should provide a balance of both. Style goes on to share an illustration using a Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy was pictured sitting at his typewriter, writing the cultural truth ‘Beauty is only skin deep.’ When the dog looked in the mirror, however, it made more sense (to the dog) to write ‘Beauty is only fur-deep.’”
When children cannot find themselves in the books they read or the images that they do see are negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how society views them. They will get the message that they are not important. Books also serve as places for children to be introduced to people who are not like them and offer an alternate view of the world. Viewing literature as a window or mirror helps us understand that in addition to being a source of stories to enjoy, books are also tools of social justice. Multicultural children’s literature helps children see that despite our differences, people share common feelings of love, sadness, and fear and common goals like what they want to be when they grow up.
Disney and Thomas the Train books have tantalizing stories and beautiful illustrations, but do they have real stories about people? Children need an abundance of real books rather than a diet of only fantasy books. Children begin to learn the difference between fantasy and reality between the ages of 3 and 5. They are still learning about the real world and can apply what they learn from a realistic story as opposed to a fantastical story.
In 2015, the Progressive Education Conference held in Brooklyn featured a conversation with several children’s book authors. Jacqueline Woodson, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and James Lecesne all shared their love of literature as children but the lack of mirrors in the books that were available to them. Whether they were looking for faces of color, gender neutral characters and clothing, the power of children, cultural or family experiences resembling their own, they didn’t find it, so each wrote about it. Their picture books and young adult fiction are great examples of outstanding children’s literature.
Children’s author, Grace Lin, was the only Asian child in her elementary school and was often excluded from activities with other classmates. She wanted to be just like the other curly-haired girls in her community. She ignored her heritage and didn’t want to speak her family’s native language. As an adult on a trip to Europe, she was asked about her parents and why they moved to the United States and realized that she did not know the answer. As a result, Grace began writing books about Asian children and families. Her award-winning books are a wonderful addition to any child’s library. Grace believes, "Books erase bias, they make the uncommon every day and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal."
During Twin Parks Montessori School’s professional development time with international speaker, Dr. Derrick Gay, we reviewed children’s picture books using a rubric to determine the book’s viability for inclusion into our library collection. In groups, we reviewed books in terms of the following:
- distortions or omissions of history - were various perspectives represented?
- evidence of stereotypical or loaded words containing negative or inaccurate representations of racial or ethnic group portrayed
- lifestyle and dialogue accurately and genuinely represent the people in the story
- the roles of females, elders, and family portrayed accurately for the culture
- positive child self-image - does not contain embarrassing or offensive messages
- standards of success are evident, characters are strong and independent
- illustrations are of genuine individuals with a variety of physical attributes
Take a look at your child’s book selection. Is there a balance of reality-based books? Are there books with mirrors and windows? Is there a balance of both? Here is a selection of book sources for you to use. You will enjoy reading time as much as your child will.